On Iranian Tea, and Ways to Drink It
A trip through the countryside of Iran may bring you to a region along the Caspian known as Gilan. Located in the city proper of Lahijan is a square building with a large tower-like tomb with a garden behind it. This building is Iran’s National Tea Museum - one link in the long tradition and history of Iran’s unique Persian tea culture. Prominence of tea drinking, similar to many other countries, has century old roots, though for Iran, tea drinking was not commonplace until the 19th century. The tomb at the tea museum belongs to Prince Mohammad Mirza, or “Kashef Al Saltaneh,” who many sources consider to be the “Father of Iranian Tea.” His position as ambassador to India in the late 19th century positioned him to take a step in tea history. He secretly returned from India to Gilan with an expansive array of Indian Assamese tea plants, that could be cultivated successfully in the region. This opened a large surge of tea plantations in the region and resulted in Iranians of every class and every lifestyle taking pleasure in the unique beverage. Today tea is a staple in Iranian culture, found in the home, in tea houses, and integrated in the daily lives of many. Through a brief exploration of tea experiences, brewing methods, and other features of the tradition, a greater appreciation for the special role tea plays in Iranian culture can be observed.
British governmental influence has its own history in many countries of the Middle East, and Iran is no exception. However, Russia also held considerable influence in the Iranian government during the 19th century. Tea culture in Iran blossomed at this time and took many of its foundational characteristics from Russian example. In her publication, Tea East & West, Jennifer Scarce accounts that “Since the 1850’s infused black tea taken without milk has been Iran’s most popular drink” (81). Earlier in the book, she describes Russian tea drinking habits, such as pouring “her tea into a saucer to cool it before sipping without milk” (80). Not only is the initial pouring tea in a saucer seen in traditional 19th and 20th century tea drinking, there is the matter of the brewing device invented in Russia that is the centerpiece of traditional Iranian tea - the samovar. Scarce describes the invention of the samovar in Tula and discusses the way a samovar works. The samovar is a large, round-shaped water basin with a charcoal pit, sometimes seen as a hot tray that pipes through the main chamber, which is filled with water. This chamber has a tap on the front for adding water after the tea is poured. The tea itself sits in a small pot on top, also heating up from the charcoal pit and brewing concentrated black tea. The tea finishes brewing and then unique Iranian glasses of a small curved shape are half filled with the thick tea. The other half is filled to specific taste with the hot water. This allows for serving many cups of tea within the space of one hot sourced device. In the magazine, The Guardian, Kelly Niknejad recalls her fondest memory with her great grandmother in Shemiran: “She poured the tea thick and potent for the adults, and ceremoniously, containing only a hint of color, to the great-grand kids. Boiling water from the samovar reduced the intensity even more.” The samovar is not only a traditional tea drinking device, it is also a cultural decoration, as can be seen by the vast collection of samovar art displayed in museums and still seen in family homes as heirlooms perfect for decor.
Thus far the focus has been on the traditional tea brewing, which in reference to today’s tea drinking culture, has mostly moved into faster, more electric, and convenient methods. Electric kettles replace the samovar, and tea comes in packets more often than in loose leaf tradition. But Iranian tea still has a special uniqueness sought by the homesick who travel abroad or by those that recall fond memories of tea time in Iran. Returning to the brief article in The Guardian, Niknejad describes the tea itself with beauty, the color “a perfect shade of brown,” and describes her great grandmother adding rose to the cup. There are many opinions regardless of cultural background as to what constitutes the perfect cup of tea. The article fondly recalls a publication of the Tehran Bureau about a journey to find the perfect cup of Iranian tea in America. The article, The Perfect Water for Tea, accounts first hand frustration of the correspondent in finding out what exactly makes the tea perfect, which he discovered, perhaps by his own preference, is water. His poetic words: “The water was not part of the tea, it was there just to extract the right essences and bear them forth in the most neutral manner,” capture a notion that Niknejad also uses, of tea being a trigger for happy memories and joyful recollection of Iranian life. Another suggestion for the perfect Iranian cup of tea could be found in not the brewing tea or the water, but in what goes along with it. Scarce references a detailed painting by the famous Isma’il Jalayir titled, Ladies Around a Samovar. In the painting, “the woman would have had a choice of ways to sweeten their tea” this being dates or other dried fruit, sugar as clumps, or sometimes honey. Tea houses in Iran can be found serving the perfect cup of tea, whether through excellent water, sweeteners, or simply the traditional methods used since the 19th century. It is not simple enough to say that tea drinking has a different style in different tea houses, or that tea brewed in an electric kettle, tea bag, or other convenient method seen in cafe styled shops is less perfect. It is a complex combination of influences, some dating back to Prince Mohammad Mirza and his establishment of tea plantations, some from Russian aristocratic influence, and some in the cherished recollection of Iranians that catalogue and reveal the special nature of Iranian tea that endures to this day.
V&A Publications, Tea East & West, Scarce, Jennifer, Russia, Iran, Turkey. V&A Publication, 2003. Print.
Correspondent, The Perfect Water for Tea. Tehran Bureau, January 19th 2011. Accessed February 24th 2018.
Niknejad, Kelly, Making the Case for Iranian Tea. Tehran Bureau, May 20th, 2014. Accessed February 24th 2018.